Authorship dispute unsatisfactorily resolved by institution
Case text (Anonymised)
The journal was contacted with a claim to first authorship of a paper currently published online ahead of print. Print publication was put on hold pending the result of the investigation. The claim to first authorship was based on the claimant stating that they had obtained most results published in the paper during their PhD studies under the supervision of the corresponding author, and contributed to the writing of the text. The claimant provided evidence of this in the form of screenshots of a submission confirmation email and subsequent rejection email from another journal for a manuscript with a similar title, a Word document labelled as the claimant’s PhD thesis and details of overlap with the published paper, and a screenshot of an email reported to have been sent by the claimant to the corresponding author in 2013 containing images used in the published paper.
The corresponding author was contacted and declared on behalf of all authors that the claimant had not contributed to the experiments or writing, and that none of the results shown in the article were performed by the claimant. They explained that the claimant was discharged from the PhD programme before successful completion. The claimant indicated that they wished to dispute this, and the institution was asked to investigate and resolve the dispute.
The institution informed the journal that the knowledge generated during state funded projects was the property of the institution, and only the institution has the ability to agree a copyright transfer in agreement with the corresponding author, and that the corresponding author had full legal and institutional support to determine the author list of papers resulting from the project. They stated that a graduate student may or may not be included as an author on papers deriving from projects to which they have contributed, and according to institutional guidelines, in order to be included as an author, a student must successfully complete their studies within a defined timeframe. The decision to remove the claimant as a co-author was confirmed to have been made because they were dismissed from the graduate programme before successful completion.
The institution did not comment on the extent of the contribution of the claimant to the research results and discussion presented in the published paper. The journal considers that ICMJE/COPE guidelines do not hold non-completion of studies as a valid reason for disqualification from authorship.
Question for the COPE Forum
• Should the journal operate according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines for determining authorship in the face of contradictory institutional authorship criteria and against the wishes of the corresponding author and institution?
• If so, how can the right to authorship of the claimant according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines be now confirmed independently of the institution?
• If a copyright transfer has already been agreed between the publisher and the institution/corresponding author, is this agreement affected if a separate correction article is published detailing an authorship change?
The Forum noted its seems punitive on the part of the university regarding their decision to exclude the student from being an author because they did not complete their studies within a defined timeframe. If the student was in the middle of their training and had submitted a paper, would the institution have handled the case differently? Was the claimant's role acknowledged in the published article? If not, might the claimant and authors agree to a correction to publish an acknowledgment?
Otherwise, a suggestion was to contact a higher authority at the institution—perhaps a committee on research integrity at the institution— or an oversight body and ask them to investigate and try to resolve the authorship issue. The Forum noted that it is up to the journal to set their own guidelines for authorship, and to clearly state that they follow the ICMJE and COPE guidelines, for example. The journal guidelines should take precedence.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the journal approached the highest authority within the university to specifically confirm that the authorship of the paper was determined according to the criteria set by ICMJE/COPE, which they did. No further action was taken. The editor considers the case closed.